The Other Side of Fear – Chris Downham

“Things that have never happened before happen all the time.” – Scott Sagan, Stanford Professor

For Christopher Downham and his wife Brandi, it was a great time in their lives. They were simply enjoying being together. Recently wed and both in their mid-twenties, they were busy doing what twenty-somethings do – working, hanging with friends, eating out – basically enjoying a time with few responsibilities.

Then one day, responsibility came calling.

“My wife gets a phone call from the school where her cousin’s daughter, Brooklyn attended,” says Chris. “The kindergarten teacher was threatening to call social services because Brooklyn showed up in class without shoes. Brooklyn’s dad had been incarcerated and was serving 10-to-15 years and her mom was now in charge, but was involved in drugs, among other things.”

“My wife called to let me know what was going on. I was running a retail store at the time and when I hung up the phone my first thought was, we are going to be raising a child now. As a young couple, we had circumvented having children. Brandi was in college, I had started the business and while some of Brandi’s other girlfriends were having kids, we decided we were good for now. But when I walked in the door that night there was Brandi with a big glass of wine in her hand… and Brooklyn asleep on the sofa. She was only four.”

 “We didn’t really plan for this. We had such a different life, I mean we ate dinner out every night. I looked in the fridge and there were five beers, butter and a can of beans. That was the life we lived.”

Sometimes in life, a sudden situation, a moment in time, alters your whole life, forever changes the road ahead.

The current road had Chris running a sporting goods store in Edmond, Oklahoma. But a few years after Brooklyn entered their lives the store wasn’t doing that well and Chris was tired of working the hours with not a lot to show for it. “I woke up one day and said I can probably make more money working for someone else,” says Chris. “Another opportunity opened up to manage a store in Dallas, so we packed up Brooklyn, who was now six, and prepared to move to Dallas. But part of the complication on making the move was Brooklyn’s dad didn’t want to allow us to adopt her. Being that he was incarcerated he had free legal services and we only had so many resources to fight him. So we managed to get a temporary guardianship to take her to Dallas.”

Once they made the move Chris quickly figured out there were two big challenges, location and his paycheck. With limited ability to impact his own earnings the Downham family found it harder and harder to make ends meet.

“We had made the move and relocated to Dallas in pursuit of an income and a new start,” says Chris. “But six months into our new life in Dallas I realized the burning sensation of our new reality – we were flat broke and living in the most expensive zip code in North Texas. After expenses, I was lucky to have grocery money and often had to make 10-dollars stretch an entire week or longer. As the manager of 77 employees at the store, it was important that morale was high and we hit our numbers. Honestly, if it weren’t for the monthly bonus in my contract we would not have been able to eat, pay rent or survive as a young family.”

Chris says he was putting in just as much work as when he owned his store in Oklahoma. “I was searching, reaching and praying for a lifeline,” says Chris. “My marriage was under immense stress and every time I turned around a necessary utility was being shut off. And then out of nowhere, it happened. Brandi and I were going to have a baby!”

With the prospect of having another mouth to feed, Chris knew things has to change. What he couldn’t know was change was on the way.

Chris and Brandi had dinner with Chris’s stepmom, who worked as a Senior VP at a corporate benefits company and was in Dallas to help close a deal. She told Chris and Brandi about the sales agent she was working with who would earn six-figures off the deal they were closing and was earning a million dollars a year.

It was a turning point.

“I thought to myself, this guy is making a million dollars a year in the insurance business and I’m selling skis to Texans?” says Chris.” My mom didn’t realize it at the time, but she put the seed in my mind. I put it out there to see what was going on in the insurance business and the calls started coming.”

The timing of Chris’s decision was precarious. The ACA was being debated in Congress and even Chris’s own father, who worked as medical director at a big insurance company, and given the current climate was advising his son against getting into the business. “Most of my calls with different insurance companies went like this – they’d tell me all about their opportunity and when I asked about the ACA they basically said they hoped it would go away.”

No plan, no strategy, no hope. No hope that is… until HOPE came calling.

With their baby coming in just a few months, Chris got a call from USHEALTH Advisors. “Somebody saw my resume,” says Chris. “It was May of 2013 and I get a phone call and when I asked if this was health insurance the woman said, ‘yes’. “I said, ‘no thanks.’ “She said, ‘you answered that pretty quickly.’ “I told her I’d done my research and knew this is not the right field, I know the ACA is going to kill this opportunity. But she said you really should speak to my leadership team.”

Chris scheduled the interview and says he actually had a good feeling because USHA seemed different than the others.

“Several days later I met with Jim Shaunfield, who greeted me in boots and jeans,” says Chris. “I asked him what made USHEALTH Advisors different than everyone else. It wasn’t what he said, it was how he said it.”

“I met my wife for lunch afterwards and she asked how it went. I told her I’d be self-employed again which she wasn’t thrilled to hear. But I said it’s not like we have overhead this time around. She said she’d need to think about it, but I already knew this is what I was going to do. As the baby kept growing in my wife’s belly my desire to do this grew too.”

Knowing they wanted to be near family, Chris told Jim he wanted to try and open an office in Oklahoma. “It had been one year since we left,” says Chris. “In September 2013, I moved my family back to Oklahoma with a mission of being successful with USHEALTH Advisors in that state. Brandi was far enough along that she was having mild contractions. I remember praying that Brandi didn’t go into labor before we crossed the Red River or we’d have to turn back and stay in Dallas.”

“We came back and found a little house. I started writing policies while my pregnant wife, my oldest daughter and my father-in-law started unloading the U-Haul truck. I knew nothing about health insurance except the card I had in my wallet. I studied it, tried to understand it and said if I can learn it then I know I can be successful.”

What you focus on expands. And Chris had all the reason in the world to focus. His family was about to grow and he needed to hit the ground running. “My first year in the business, our baby, Haven was born. I still remember dialing leads from the hospital room. I had to make this work.”

“The first year actually went very well. I got promoted to a Field Training Agent. I started growing with new agents and that was the hardest, but most rewarding part – teaching others to do this. I struggled, but my personal production was really great so that helped me to grow as well.”

Chris also credits Division Sales Leader Jim Schmitt as being instrumental in helping to build a winning team. “Schmitty came to us and started working on the front lines in 2016. I went from three agents to fifteen solid producers that year, many of which are still my top producers even now.”

Fast forward to today, where Chris is now a Satellite Division Sales Leader with a team that has produced nearly $40 million in issued health policies.

“Life is good,” says Chris. “Once I got going, over the next couple of years we grew the business and as I talk to new agents I look back and know that I almost didn’t do this. When I hire a new agent I can see the decision process in their eyes and know they are unsure. I also know what’s possible. If I hadn’t done this how many lives would remain unchanged? This career completely changed my life – after living paycheck to paycheck and having utilities cut-off – to being really stable and having the time with my kids I would not have had before.”

Chris continues, “It doesn’t even feel like we came to this – it feels like this opportunity found us. I was in dire straits in Texas and I needed something to give me financial freedom. I got all the bad advice from all those who love me – telling me not to do this – that my wife was pregnant it was too risky, etc. But I had a gut feeling, I knew I could do this. I feel like everything happens for a reason. God was testing me and while most people might have slipped back into the false security of a salary position, I thought there was just something about this company that was going to work for me and my family.”

Now that it’s all working, the goal is to keep it going, to spread the word and to cultivate the culture.

“I take a lot of pride in this company,” says Chris. “I’ve always felt like this is my company too. We believe in entrepreneurship – not employees. We’re partners – a team – we give you everything you need. We’ve built processes now too and if we find people and plug them into those processes we’re going to help make them successful. The only thing they need to bring is drive and hustle.”

It’s that extra something that Chris has had from the time he was getting paid under the table to tune ski equipment until he was old enough to get a loan and open his own store. But now his tune has changed, from skateboards and skis to selling and sacrificing to help others.

“My responsibility is primarily to train new agents. Recruiting, contracting and moving them through licensing. I get them in the door and get them trained and tell them my story since in many cases they are scared when they come in. It’s recruit, train, motivate, repeat. Hit your numbers, grow the business, grow the careers, grow the agents and see it really take off.”

There’s great power in persistency and patience and purpose.

Chris says he’s never lost his drive to do what it takes to change his life and the lives of other people. “2020 was a really great year,” says Chris. “We built a new house and finalized Brooklyn’s adoption on her 16th birthday! She finally got to change her name, we were thrilled. So many people look back on 2020 and say they’re glad it’s over. But I say 2020 was a good year for us.”

It’s all in your perspective, the way you look at life. Chris chooses to see the silver lining and knows if you put the same effort into work and into love it will all work out in the end.

“I think I’m a good example that you can pretty much do whatever you want if you can find the motivation to do it. I had a lot of stuff moving against me as a kid, but I went against the grain. If you hustle, you can do anything, it’s so cliche but it’s true. We’re told to be safe in life, but everything you’ve ever wanted is on the other side of fear.”

Until next time, thanks for taking the time.

Your Storyteller,

Mark Brodinsky

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